The Watts Towers in Southern Italy: Connecting California with Irpinia
I started this blog in 2007 with a post that highlighted transnational links between the landlocked Southern Italian area known as Irpinia and California, the Golden State. It is a connection to which I have returned multiple times in these pages as well as in my research.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to travel through parts of Italy with U.S. and Italian colleagues presenting the book Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development (edited by Luisa Del Giudice, Fordham University Press, 2014).
Among our stops was an amazing visit to Serino, the birthplace of Sabato Rodia. Serino—is part of Irpinia, and the town and the community immediately seemed familiar to me—from the intonation of the Serino dialect to the caciocavallo, from the melodic song of the tarantella performances in honor of our visit to the hillsides still green and lush in late June.
Center of Rivottoli and Carnevale performers
We know very little about Rodia’s time in Italy before his migration in the 1890s, but he was born in Rivottoli, a hilly hamlet (“frazione”) of Serino. However, until I visited I had not recognized fully that Rodia was not just from Southern Italy, nor even from a small town in the province of Avellino. Rodia was Irpino.
A somewhat forgotten area of Italy, geographically isolated, ravished by earthquakes and emigration, Irpinia, continues today to be economically depressed and isolated in many ways. (See the coda for a poem by Pasquale Stiso, former Communist mayor and poet from the Irpinia town of Andretta, describing Irpinia in the 1950s.) Rodia would have been part of an exodus of the area that has been going on now for well over 100 years and that has left many towns with populations dramatically lower than what they were in the early twentieth century.
Group shot after the presentation of Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts
(Serino, June 2014)
After our formal presentation in Serino, we went to Rivottoli. Today Rodia’s family house is barely standing, a crumbling structure, like thousands of others in the region, that was destroyed in the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake and never rebuilt.
In addition to meeting one of Rodia’s relatives, Vincenzo Rodia, I also spoke briefly with a man, Angelo Filarmonio, who had visited the Watts Towers in 1984 while on a tour of the U.S. organized by the former Banca Popolare dell’Irpinia. Filarmonio’s family house in Rivottoli was right next to Rodia’s, and as a neighbor to the family he had heard about Sabato’s constructions.
interior shot of the Rodia family home, June 2014
These photographs and the community memory in Serino and Rivottoli of Rodia and his work provide a framework for further understanding the Towers and their place in cultural history.
in Rivottoli with Angelo Filarmonio holding his photos taken in 1984
at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles
(with Amoroso Raimondo and Cirino Filippo.)
For me, a scholar particularly interested in transnational migration in Irpinia and material culture, this visit underscored the need to excavate further what it means for Sabato Rodia to have been not only an immigrant from Southern Italy, but from Irpinia specifically.
The physical presence of Sabato Rodia in Irpinia—the remains of his home, the memory of the community, the monument made in his honor (see photo below), not to mention what might possibly be uncovered in the town’s public archives—could be used both to construct a museum to honor Rodia’s past and to situate Serino within a contemporary cultural legacy that keeps pushing beyond the here and now.
contemporary sculpture dedicated to Sabato Rodia and all emigrants, Serino
I’d like to express my sincerest gratitude to everyone in Serino and Rivottoli, but especially to the commune and Serino’s mayor, Gaetano De Feo, as well as everyone at the Associazione RIVUS, especially Simone De Feo. I also thank Katia Ballachino, Alessandra Broccolini, Luisa Del Giudice, and Joseph Sciorra.
In the 1950s, Pasquale Stiso, former Communist mayor and poet from the Irpinia town of Andretta, described Irpinia this way (English translation below the Italian original).
La mia terra
La mia terra
lungo le rotabili
non ci hanno salutato
con la mano tesa
nei loro occhi
non c’era l’ombra
di un sorriso
solo una mestizia
pesava sui loro volti.
La mia terra
la mia terra
ma nessuno sente
nessuno ha pieta’
per la mia terra.
I have understood.
along the freight cars
did not greet us
with their hands raised,
in their eyes
there was no hint
of a smile
only an immense
weighted down their glance.
but no one hears
no one has pity
for my land.